On November 15, Aaju Peter presented the 2022 Harold Innis Lecture, titled “Twice Colonized.” The lecture focused on how Peter reclaimed her identity after being separated from her culture as a child. Peter, an activist, lawyer, teacher, and designer, was born in Greenland and travelled to Denmark at the age of 11.

Harold Innis lecture

The Harold Innis lecture is an annual event hosted by the Harold Innis Foundation (HIF) and the Innis College Alumni Office. According to Ben Weststrate, the HIF secretary, the board chooses lecturers based on their connection to themes in Harold Innis’ work and their capacity to “shine a spotlight on important issues.” 

In an email to The Varsity, Westrate connected Peter’s advocacy for the seal hunting rights of Indigenous people to The Fur Trade in Canada, Harold Innis’ seminal 1930 book on Canadian economic history

This is the tip of the iceberg (Arctic pun intended) with respect to alignment between Aaju Peter and Harold Innis. And there are, of course, important differences in their perspectives,” wrote Weststrate. “Aaju Peter was a dream lecturer for us.”

Peter’s story

After an introduction from former city councillor Ceta Ramkhalawansingh and a video appearance from author Margaret Atwood, Aaju Peter took the stage wearing a green hooded dress that she had made. 

Within the hour, Peter had chronicled her life, interspersing songs, jokes, and teachings into her narrative. 

Peter was born in the northern part of Greenland. “There was a policy in Greenland that demanded that we should all become Danishized — we should all learn the Danish language, we should all learn everything about Denmark, that had colonized our island,” she said. 

At the age of 11, Peter was sent to Denmark with a group of students and placed with a Danish family. When she returned to Greenland as an 18 year old, she had forgotten how to speak Greenlandic, the language spoken by her parents.

“I couldn’t speak with my mother,” she recounted. This hurt was compounded by the judgment she received. “I was scolded for not being able to speak my own language. I was told that I was a cookie: I was brown on the outside and white on the inside,” she said. “That made me very angry and hurt.” 

A year later, Peter attended a meeting of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, which represents the Inuit in Greenland, Canada, Alaska, and Chukotka, a northern region of Russia. “I was blown away,” she said. “I had never heard any story about my own background, about my own people.” 

She said that, in 1981, she “took the first Inuk guy from Canada” and moved to the Canadian Arctic to live with her new husband’s family.

Moving to the Arctic allowed Peter to reconnect to Inuit culture. “People welcomed the fact that I was learning, as opposed to in Greenland — because I was Greenlandic, I [was told I] should be ashamed for not being able to speak my own language.” While living with her then husband’s family, she learned the stories, language, and values of the Inuit community in Canada. 

Over the subsequent years, Peter became a fierce advocate for the rights and cultural practices of the Inuit in Canada and across the Arctic. She raised five children, received a law degree, released an album of Greenland Inuit songs, began designing sealskin clothing, and has been featured in multiple documentaries.

Currently, Peter lives in Iqaluit, the capital of Nunavut. She teaches Greenlandic — the language she lost as a child and which she relearned later in life — to other Inuit. 

Seal hunting in Inuit culture

Peter is a renowned advocate for the rights of the Inuit to hunt seals, and her lecture highlighted the importance of seal hunting to the economic and social well-being of Inuit. According to Peter, hunters share the meat with the community and often sell skins to recover the costs of hunting. 

Seal meat is also rich in nutrients including protein, zinc, calcium, and iron. It is one of the few sources of food produced in the Arctic, where most food must be shipped from the south at high prices.

A 2009 EU ban prohibited the trade of seal products on the European market. Although a 2015 amendment inserted an exemption for products produced by Inuit, some Inuit have received threats for engaging in the seal trade, and a report published by the European Commission in 2020 found that the exemption has failed to address the socio-economic harms of the ban. “What the seal ban did was make a life that was already hard for… our people even harder,” said Peter. 

According to the 2017–2018 Household Food Security Survey Module, 57 per cent of households in Nunavut experience food insecurity. A 2020 paper published by the Library of Parliament attributed such astronomical rates of food insecurity to the high cost of food in the Arctic, along with “socioeconomic inequities, the legacy of colonial policies, climate change and environmental dispossession and contamination.” 

Since receiving her law degree, Peter has written legal articles and appeared at the Hague and other governmental bodies arguing against seal hunting bans. She is featured prominently in the 2016 documentary “Angry Inuk,” which chronicles Inuk activists’ fight against seal huntings bans.

Her advocacy is informed by what she has learned from her community. “I follow the teaching of our elders that say you have to talk, you have to be kind, you have to come to an understanding,” said Peter. 

Reactions from the U of T community

513 people registered to attend the lecture either virtually or in person, one fifth of whom were students. After the lecture, The Varsity spoke with a few attendees. 

Marisa Brook, an assistant professor in the Department of Linguistics, said that she came to the lecture because of her interest in language but was blown away by the perspective that Peter shared. “I didn’t expect how easily we would be welcomed into a perspective that was just so much more different than I expected, and yet so accessible and welcoming and challenging all at the same time,” she said.

“This matching of gratitude and responsibility is something that’s really hit home for me in the last couple of months in particular because of multiple talks I’ve heard from Indigenous leaders,” said Karen Reed, the acting principal of Innis College. 

Reed also believes that lectures such as these inform her work. “[Peter] touched on so many themes today in her talk,” she said. “It reminds me that, when I’m talking and working with students, [I should] be really listening and thinking about how to incorporate some of those ideas into my own work.”